Sunday, November 7, 2010

Soulforce Symposium in Philadelphia, Part I

Panel discussion on intersectional justice at the Soulforce Symposium.
I had the privilege of attending the Soulforce Symposium in Philadelphia on November 6th, which was an absolute delight. I've blogged about the many toxic Religious Right events I've infiltrated, so it's refreshing to blog about a hopeful, invigorating event hosted by such a positive organization. Plus, it allowed me to get acquainted with some fun corners of a vibrant city.

As you recall, the "ex-gay" National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) was holding a conference that weekend in Philadelphia, and thus Soulforce held a conference at the same time to combat lies from the "ex-gay" movement. As Soulforce executive director Dr. Cindi Love explains in this commentary at the Advocate, "ex-gay" groups such as NARTH, JONAH, and Exodus International have promoted dubious reparative therapy, intended to "cure" people of homosexual inclinations. The result has been ruined lives and homophobia, made even worse by the spread of the "ex-gay" message worldwide.

In a corner of the conference, Soulforce was recording video accounts from attendees talking about faith, the coming out process, and "ex-gay" reparative therapy. Soulforce board member Peter Drake recorded this account of his frustration with reparative therapy, his self-awareness as a gay man, and his indebtedness to Soulforce.

The symposium began with a warm welcome from Dr. Cindi Love and Jason Conner, Soulforce director of Programs. Love discussed the challenges of coming out in a religious family and community, as well as how faith-based LGBTQ resources helped her in the coming-out process. The plenary address was given by Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and pastor of Revolution Church in New York City. He began his talk by saying how great it was to be an LGBTQ ally, and how he has been criticized by some homophobes for "enabling" gays:
"Being an ally is just been exceptional for me. I would have it no other way. I always thought my legacy was going to be preacher of grace, and maybe one day that might still be. Mostly now I'm on message boards and etcetera. I'm the "gay-affirming pastor". I've also been called the "gay-enabling pastor."
Bakker spoke at length about the strength he drew from Paul Tillich's theology on acceptance, as well as the concept of sin as separation. Hatred and homophobia, not homosexuality, are sins because they create separation among people.

Next, audience members broke up into four groups for community round table discussions on faith and the LGBTQ movement. With input from so many diverse people, the group discussions were fruitful and thought-provoking. In my group, discussion revolved around ways that LGBTQ-affirming voices of faith often went unheard in public discussion, drowned out by the voices of anti-gay fundamentalists. People talked about their own spiritual journeys, open and affirming congregations, and the string of LGBTQ youth suicides from the past few weeks. Soulforce posted an excerpt from another group's discussion, which you can view below. (Click here if you're having trouble viewing the video.)

When attendees dispersed to attend workshops, I gravitated toward Jallen Rix's presentation, entitled "Ex-Gay Ministries and Religious Abuse: Twins Hatched from the Same Egg." A survivor of reparative therapy, Rix is now an LGBTQ advocate, sexologist, and the author of Ex-Gay No Way: Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse. In his workshop, Rix argued that the ex-gay movement displays many characteristics of religious abuse. He was careful to note that he does not see all religion as abusive, noting that God allows for many interpretations of scripture and many types of relationships with him.

Rix listed the five characteristics of religious abuse that he observed in the ex-gay movement: (1) leadership is seen as a conduit of divine authority to which all people must submit, (2) all things deemed part of the corrupt "world" (i.e., other religions, secular ideas, and the flesh) are evil and devious, revealing an us-versus-them mentality, (3) all participants in the system are seen as flawed in some way, (4) participants, not the religious organization, are to blame when peace or truth is elusive, while being forbidden from exploring other avenues of spirituality, and (5) when participants inevitably fail at the task set before them, they often succumb to depression, anxiety, exhaustion, and even suicide.

The workshop broke up into groups, and Rix gave each group a fictional scenario about someone experiencing religious abuse or struggling to come out. Group members discussed strategies for handling each situation and shared their observations with the room. This democratic kind of audience participation was refreshing, and I was glad to see it at the symposium.

With regard to the Religious Right, Rix emphasized the importance of separation of church and state, stating that one can be a loving, just person without being a fundamentalist Christian. With regard to disagreements within the LGBTQ movement, he stressed that agreeing to disagree is not enough; rather, our differences should be celebrated as a force that makes our communities stronger.

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It was lunchtime, and as much as I wanted to take in the lunchtime workshop, I had little desire to eat the cold cut sandwiches prepared for attendees. Besides, this was Philadelphia, and I was eager to explore.

Reading Terminal Market
My first destination was the Reading Terminal Market, a colossal farmers market in downtown Philadelphia. Upon entering the market, one is bombarded not only crowds, but by the smells of chocolate, fruit, seafood, and cuisines too numerous to mention. Moving through the river of humanity was a full sensory experience as I passed what seemed like hundreds of stalls selling sweets, produce, plants, herbs, wines, books, and ethnic food for every palate. A MUST-SEE for anyone visiting Philly!

Live crabs for sale in Chinatown.

Next, I wandered through nearby Chinatown, passing by restaurants, grocery stores, and even a Chinese candy shop. I paused at a seafood shop where fresh blue crabs, still moving, were fumbling inside a wooden basket outside the door. Curiosity led me inside, where tanks housed live fish and eels, brown crabs jostled inside another wooden basket, and all manner of fresh sea life rested on ice: conchs (still in their shells), scallops, oysters, fish, and soft creatures inside hard tube-like shell that I couldn't identify. When I came upon FOOT-LONG clams that resembled monstrous tongues, I had to take a photo.

Gaaaaah! Monster clams!
(UPDATE: Knatolee has informed me that the monster clams are geoducks, also known as mud ducks or king clams.)

In part II, I describe a panel discussion on intersectional justice in the LGBTQ movement, as well as a workshop by Christine Robinson entitled, "Genocidal Intentions: Public Policy and the Ex-Gay Movement."

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